Stephen Ambrose is full of crap. Or, if he indeed thinks of the Missouri River from Coal Banks to Judith Landing that “Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one” he just simply didn’t get out much. Ambrose is the most prominent of the many who indulge in Corps of Discovery bred hagiography about this part of Montana. Yes, the ~200 miles of river and reservoir from Fort Benton to the Fort Peck Dam has only two bridges, two ferries, and no real towns or villages, but it also has plenty of farms and ranches, a simply large amount of cows, and a road or ATV track in almost every creek and coulee. It isn’t wilderness, and the impact of people is omnipresent, but it is remote, and the absence of too many folks along with their cattle tanks and irrigation and mesa-top hay fields makes for exceedingly good mule deer habitat.
I must agree with Mr. Ambrose on the cottonwood; it is the most ecologically singular of western trees, the anchor for so much of the arid landscapes, and a vital resource for both the Corps of Discovery and more current explorers. Lewis and Clark and company fought up through the Breaks during the height of spring and early summer runoff, an achievement whose burl and stamina is almost impossible to comprehend. If you look at streamflow averages, from today and reconstructions from centuries past, you’ll notice that not only has the head been lopped off the monster Missouri, all limbs have been amputated. The western edge of the Yellowstone births the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin whose combined might is stopped by a series of reservoirs which provides, among many other things, water to the school where I work. The later tributaries, which drain the east side of the Crown of the Continent, are almost without exception dammed within sight of the continental divide, and further moderated into convenience by irrigation works. While down on the main stem our late-October flows were actually higher than the multi-century average, the near total absence of floods put to the lie common assertions that the White Cliffs are as the Corps would have seen them. Big gnarled cottonwoods, stately in their patient detente with the wind, are in appropriate abundance, but cottonwood seedlings and saplings are rare. Plenty of the later could be seen in strategic locations and from a distance, fenced off 5 feet high to keep the cattle and deer from eliminating their favorite snack. The centurions aren’t immune from human welfare either; many were skirted in chickenwire to keep out the still-abundant and ever-entrepenurial beavers.
Anyone curious how we colonists would have found our own treatment had it been self-visited need only look at our treatment of the beaver, whose grit and perseverance we so fiercely prize in ourselves, and which is lower Others is met with wrath and poison and dynamite.
The Breaks may not be as scenic as claimed, or as isolated as many would like, but the wildlife are certainly there. Not in abundance by the standards of midwestern agriculture or mid-Atlantic suburbs, as no amount of work can turn desert at nearly 48 degrees north into industrial permaculture, but by western wilderness standards there are a lot of deer out there. The river provides a perennial water source, sage on hills too steep and rugged for cattle guaranteed winter foodstuff, and the landscape plenty of places to hide from the sun, wind, or both no matter the time of year or day. A few places in the White Cliffs stretch support juniper and ponderosa, and a few other places feature infant slot canyons, hoodoos, and jagged fins, but most of the miles are rolling enough to be rugged yet flat enough to be nondescript. The tenure, color palette, and yes the cow-burntedness ideally conjures any other arid western place fed by distant snowmelt, be it Montana or Wyoming or Arizona. Not grand by any means, but homey, home-like, and by modern standards wild enough, and more than remote.
On our first day we left town after breakfast and didn’t get on the river until an hour before dark, the day very hot and mild and taken up almost entirely by running a car shuttle. Our second was preoccupied with making miles, to guarantee days hunting on opening morning and to guard against a turn in the weather. That day was overcast and on the cold edge of mild once the morning headwind had left us, and before the nuclear afternoon breeze. The paddling on this part of the Missouri is as easy as river canoeing gets, with a mostly straight channel, no rapids or riffles, and barely any rocks. Save for the wind. One neglectful corner and a shift in the wind has us hard against the left bank with a right cross/tailwind, trying to surf and tic-tac our way between broaching broadside and running aground, while gusts to 50 mph raged and Little Bear napped along in the bottom of the boat. Thankfully the Penobscot 17 Jason generously lent us is fast enough for decent efficiency into a varying winds, and quick enough for a pair of slightly rusty canoeists to farily easily pilot down a technical wind run.
That evening wind burned hard cottonwood limbs and bark into hot coals in minutes, and we ate big steaks fast in order to hide in the tent and fall asleep at 7pm. The next morning I took a walk down the shore and a ways up a drainage, spying a family group of does and fawns within 25 minutes of leaving camp. Montana gives out a lot of deer B (doe only) tags for many of its many different regions, and I am barely started on my decades-long research into which are most preferred, but today the 680-00 tag is top of the list. As I’ve written recently, there is nothing better in hunting than studying an area from afar, building a plan for a place you’ve never been, going, and executing perfectly. Luck in hunting is no more or less complex than in anything else, the extent to which research and doing things properly can bend it towards you is only particularly well displayed.
The middle of that day was spent making more miles. It was bright and sunny and would have been very warm were it not for the continued, mildly abated wind. We waited 10 minutes for a lull, launched nervously, and paddled hard all the way to the shadow of the far cliffs before hooking downstream. I paid special attention to getting pressed by wind changes at bends that afternoon, and only got caught out once. As I’ve written recently, there is nothing better in hunting than studying an area from afar, building a plan for a place you’ve never been, going, and executing perfectly. That evening we camped in another stand of stout cottonwoods, finding the only flat spot right towards the upstream end of a file 500 marching yards long. A loud tent seemed like a good price to pay for flat ground. I climbed for 20 minutes and sat down to glass, seeing a group of five spook hard left to right, out of the treed gullies and into the heaving sage slopes. What spooked them will forever remain a mystery, and with a general tag still in my pocket and a particularly tall, thin, and graceful forkie on the move I followed as fast as the three hours left til dark allowed. I got within 50 yards of the old growth sage I had seen them disappear into without jumping anything, and I finally kicked up the three does when I got within 20. They posed and looked and snorted at me plenty before disappearing, and a general tag is good for any deer in 680, but I had meat hanging in the tree down the hill, and an eye for that forkie. Two hours, much glassing, two bad shots, and one rushed and just good enough shot later I had him. He fell, instantly, got back up, and ran 50 bounding yards with two broken shoulders down into the pencil bottom of a coulee. When I climbed back out 45 minutes later I had more meat, and it was utterly dark and windless. I got lost in the coulees which kept crossing my path out of nowhere across the flat field, and overshot camp to get lost and tangled and tripped on my face pushing through the willows backs to the river.
The next morning we thankfully had only 5 of the least interesting miles left, as halfway through 10 minutes of carrying gear to the car the wind jumped from steady at 10 to steady at 35, gusting to 50. The several times we had to stop on the drive back up to Virgelle to adjust the rigging I needed both hands to push the car door open.
My bitching and scenic elitism aside this is a trip worth doing, especially with fall scenery and rifle hunting to be had. Lots of people talk about this, but not many seem to do it. Here’s how I’d do it again.
Coal Banks to Judith easily goes in 2.5 days of paddling. 3-4 with plenty of hunting is good, and 5 would not be too much. 6 would be. Much of the river bank is private, or to be more precise, often the public land does not extent far back. Fortunately almost all the good hunting spots are public. Study a map carefully beforehand. We chose this stretch as much for the closer drive and much shorter car shuttle as for any other reason. Hunting the Judith to Kipp stretch would I think be more fun from a hunting perspective, with better terrain and less agricultural presence.
Wind and weather are a major factor, and surely the reason why more don’t pull the trigger on this trip. As locals we had the luxury of a warm weather window for opening weekend, and I heavily advocated that this was THE time to do this as a family trip. Even with one overcast day and two windy days the weather could have been a lot, lot tougher, and even as it was M was borderline too uncomfortable throughout. Hit our conditions with 20-30 F degree colder ambient temps (very possibly, even normal) and I think anyone would be hard pressed to be at all comfortable. Similarly, a boat with decent tracking that is at least good in the wind is mandatory. Colder temps would obviate the need to pack meat in a cooler, and if this were the case I would not hesitate to bring a sea kayak on this float purely to guard against head and cross winds.
As usual LB did great, staying warm in fleece and windproof layers with greater ease than we thought. We did drop things out of the boat, including his paddle (recovered), mitten (recovered), and a toy wheel loader (sunk). Keeping his wiggly self in a sleeping bag all night remains a challenge we’re still figuring out, but once we convinced him the wind was amusing and not scary no sleep was lost to that.
I found deer where I expected to find them; in rugged but not excessively steep terrain with plenty of cover and sage immediately at hand, and water somewhat close. Tactful walking and basic glassing gets the job done. These deer don’t see many people. I used my spotting scope to investigate details (antler tips in sage fields, etc) but that isn’t necessary if you’re meat hunting. There were enough mallards in the ten miles before the Judith River that I’d consider bringing a shotgun.
It’s a perfect example of the kind of landscape which is of only modest interest if you aren’t hunting, but has a rare blend of big visibility, plenty of cover, and lots of critters that makes hunting a real blast. Do it.
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